Diana Clement 's Opinion

Your Money and careers writer for the NZ Herald

Diana Clement: Engage staff to heal toxic workplace

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File photo / Supplied.
File photo / Supplied.

Warning: the workplace you are about to enter is toxic. The employees are the living dead and the customers are suffering.

The Oxford Concise Dictionary describes toxic as "poisonous". A toxic workplace is one where staff members are disengaged and may even be working against the company.

There are all sorts of causes for toxicity in workplaces. You may have moribund management, a corporate psychopath at the top, poisonous colleagues or a culture of disengagement from the bottom up that has become ingrained.

Some of the signs of a toxic workplace include:

* High staff turnover.

* Staff taking sickies.

* Not taking care or pride in work.

* Slacking off when the boss isn't around.

* Staff criticising their employer to others in the industry.

* Employers who think loyalty is dead.

* Companies that treat employees as a means of production only.

Conversely, good employers can bring these people out of their shells and find the good in them.

Most employees can spot a toxic workplace a mile off. The real way to measure it is to take an employee engagement survey such as those offered by JRA (NZ) or Gallup.

The great thing about employee-engagement surveys is that they're anonymous and the staff can say the truth. It can be difficult for management to swallow but shouldn't be avoided.

There is a tipping point on those surveys - below a certain level staff start working actively against the company.

Toxic workplaces can be turned around. Some companies using the JRA Best Workplaces staff engagement surveys have doubled their results over time.

But it's a long journey and the results can get worse before they get better - in part because a turnaround often requires redundancies, which produces a vicious cycle.

Glenys Ker, a career practitioner who runs CareerFit, has worked with a number of companies going through redundancies and has encountered staff members who have become institutionalised.

"Some people have a sense of entitlement to their salary", yet they're not productive.

"Many don't realise that just because they've been in the job for 20 or 30 years doesn't make them a good employee," says Ker.

But change can happen, and Ker cites the case of Otago Polytechnic, at which her husband is chief executive, as a workplace that has turned around. "When [my husband] took over it was really in debt. He had no choice but to cut staff, yet made sure that staff members were consulted. The staff had lots of good ideas."

Leighton Abbot, senior consultant for JRA (NZ), says that where there is an improvement in a company's employee engagement it's due to a fundamental cultural change in the organisation.

"If you are describing the workplace as toxic, generally senior leadership is supporting reinforcing it in an active way, an indirect way or by omission," says Abbot.

"Quite often most of the rest of the organisation is aware of what the problem is."

Where JRA sees a turnaround it is often associated with a new chief executive or a large change in the senior management team.

A new chief executive worth his or her salt will take the pulse of the organisation and look to implement a new culture.

"Often quite senior leadership are leading and say, 'We are not going to be like this anymore. This is not a positive thing for our organisation,"' Abbot says.

"When I think about clients who have been able to turn things around, most often it is a new chief executive who says: 'I don't like what I see here.' They need to reset. It is not about slowly chipping away [at the problems]."

When change is enforced, companies with a failing organisational culture will have some employees behave badly because they don't want to change.

As well as toxic workplaces, most people will have to work with a toxic colleague, manager or subordinate at some point. These are people who have low emotional intelligence and are actively disengaged from their workplace.

Being toxic is a two-way thing. Management might be at fault but staff can reinforce the problem.

In every organisation there are people who automatically see the negative side. There are the "them and us" people. Those who believe the bosses are bad and that there is something negative in everything that they do.

That sort of toxic attitude to work is never going to get anyone promoted - and they're likely to take it with them to successive employers.

Ker hears a lot of "they should" from employees in toxic workplaces. "I remember saying, Who is 'they'? We have a culture of blame in [some workplaces]."

It is hard to get through to such employees that they could take responsibility for change and be pro-active in their workplace.

Ker says a toxic workplace is one where management is making decisions without bringing people on board. "They are pushing through change and telling you the end result rather than dealing with the process, and people react badly to this. It is so disengaging and disempowering."

Sometimes it is managers who make rash decisions and forget to bring on board their people. Other times the rank-and-file employees are kept in the dark deliberately.

Both management and employees can take action in a toxic workplace. Not all employees like the toxic atmosphere. Instead of running to HR with a complaint, they could stand up to the employee who is making them feel negative if they really want to have an effect on their own work environment, says Ker.

Usually others feel the same as the person who wants to make a complaint. A toxic employee is more likely to listen if he or she realises colleagues aren't on the same page and don't like the behaviour.

"You need one person to stand up and say, 'I don't want to work with you,"' says Ker. "Fight back. Take a stand and say: 'I am finding this really difficult with you.'

"That is really powerful when someone stands up and says, 'You are negative, you take us all down and we don't agree with you."'

From a management perspective, employers need to be really open with employees if they want to change a failed culture. "They need to say 'we are a team and I need your help,"' says Ker.

Employers also need to know how to motivate employees. No one is ever going to say they don't want more money. But there are other motivational actions that can be taken. Sometimes simply giving them a letter saying they've done a great job is the motivation they need.

Toxic workplaces don't do anything in a competitive recruitment market. It's often well known which are the toxic companies to be avoided. Conversely, great companies to work for don't have trouble recruiting the best people.

Abbot says the effect of a toxic workplace can show up in the performance of an individual employee level, at an organisational level and flow through to customer experience. This often has a direct impact on profits. Companies that manage their people properly have a considerable business advantage.

- NZ Herald

Diana Clement

Your Money and careers writer for the NZ Herald

Diana Clement is a freelance journalist who writes about personal finance and careers. She has worked as a journalist for more than 25 years in both New Zealand and the UK. Diana has contributed to a large number of local and international publications. Her pet topic is the secrets of saving money.

Read more by Diana Clement

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